Scent and Sense

Oli Williams, the blogger behind www.filmfoodfragrance.wordpress.com, explores the effect of smell and perfume on the human psyche.

Our sense of smell is crucial to both impression and memory, and has a massive impact on the ways we interact with and think about each other. Smelling something can quite literally transport our mind’s eye to a memory that we may never have recalled otherwise, just like how we suddenly remember dreams; and how someone smells is an attribute that carries great weight in our overall perception of them, sometimes devastatingly so. Here’s my (hopefully) thought-provoking exploration into scent and human interaction as I bring you a journey through scent in the next eight weeks.

The world of fragrance is often undervalued and underestimated. Society spends lavishly on appearance – on clothing, hair, accessories, skin and dental products. What I have found we often seem to neglect, however, is how we smell. Many of us will have experienced first-hand how crippling an offensive odour can have on our first impression of someone. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that a bad smell nigh-on irreversibly discolours any physical impression whatsoever. With one whiff of body odour or bad breath, that person who seemed so attractive before dramatically becomes a figure of objective repulsion. Or look at this way: as humans, we are wont to appreciate and even love one another’s imperfections (the slight lisp, the short temper, the scar on the forehead from a motorbike accident, you name it), but we never appreciate a bad smell. This is because of the profound effect our nose has on our perceptions, making bad odours so much more unforgivable than offensive sights or sounds. For an odour is, I suppose, a chemical stimulus that causes a chemical reaction in the brain which we are unable to ignore. Perhaps this is why scent plays such an important role in the ‘first impression’ scenario: we only get one chance to make that chemical reaction a positive one.

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For the same chemical reason, in as much as a bad odour can revolt, a pleasing scent can have an attractive force much more meaningful and complicated than, for example, simply looking ‘nice’. I believe that the way we smell has a long-lasting and powerful effect on our identities in the eyes of other people. It is a part of us that others will, whether consciously or not, include in their overall mental image of us, because the sense of smell is such a powerful trigger in the limbic system. Our scent is as much ours as our face or voice, and it will stick in the mind of our peers as something which contributes to their perceived definition of us because it is unique – even manufactured perfumes smell differently on different people’s skin.

So, in as much as we put effort into our hair, makeup, or outfits, our fragrance needs to be looked after. Of course, I won’t insult the reader by discussing how to smell good, but I hope to have piqued an interest in fragrance and its vital importance as a result of its effect on the brain.